Writing About Poetry
Contributors: Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2018-02-21 12:51:36
Writing about poetry can be one of the most demanding tasks that many students face in a literature class. Poetry, by its very nature, makes demands on a writer who attempts to analyze it that other forms of literature do not. So how can you write a clear, confident, well-supported essay about poetry? This handout offers answers to some common questions about writing about poetry.
What's the Point?
In order to write effectively about poetry, one needs a clear idea of what the point of writing about poetry is. When you are assigned an analytical essay about a poem in an English class, the goal of the assignment is usually to argue a specific thesis about the poem, using your analysis of specific elements in the poem and how those elements relate to each other to support your thesis.
So why would your teacher give you such an assignment? What are the benefits of learning to write analytic essays about poetry? Several important reasons suggest themselves:
- To help you learn to make a text-based argument. That is, to help you to defend ideas based on a text that is available to you and other readers. This sharpens your reasoning skills by forcing you to formulate an interpretation of something someone else has written and to support that interpretation by providing logically valid reasons why someone else who has read the poem should agree with your argument. This isn't a skill that is just important in academics, by the way. Lawyers, politicians, and journalists often find that they need to make use of similar skills.
- To help you to understand what you are reading more fully. Nothing causes a person to make an extra effort to understand difficult material like the task of writing about it. Also, writing has a way of helping you to see things that you may have otherwise missed simply by causing you to think about how to frame your own analysis.
- To help you enjoy poetry more! This may sound unlikely, but one of the real pleasures of poetry is the opportunity to wrestle with the text and co-create meaning with the author. When you put together a well-constructed analysis of the poem, you are not only showing that you understand what is there, you are also contributing to an ongoing conversation about the poem. If your reading is convincing enough, everyone who has read your essay will get a little more out of the poem because of your analysis.
What Should I Know about Writing about Poetry?
Most importantly, you should realize that a paper that you write about a poem or poems is an argument. Make sure that you have something specific that you want to say about the poem that you are discussing. This specific argument that you want to make about the poem will be your thesis. You will support this thesis by drawing examples and evidence from the poem itself. In order to make a credible argument about the poem, you will want to analyze how the poem works—what genre the poem fits into, what its themes are, and what poetic techniques and figures of speech are used.
What Can I Write About?
Theme: One place to start when writing about poetry is to look at any significant themes that emerge in the poetry. Does the poetry deal with themes related to love, death, war, or peace? What other themes show up in the poem? Are there particular historical events that are mentioned in the poem? What are the most important concepts that are addressed in the poem?
Genre: What kind of poem are you looking at? Is it an epic (a long poem on a heroic subject)? Is it a sonnet (a brief poem, usually consisting of fourteen lines)? Is it an ode? A satire? An elegy? A lyric? Does it fit into a specific literary movement such as Modernism, Romanticism, Neoclassicism, or Renaissance poetry? This is another place where you may need to do some research in an introductory poetry text or encyclopedia to find out what distinguishes specific genres and movements.
Versification: Look closely at the poem's rhyme and meter. Is there an identifiable rhyme scheme? Is there a set number of syllables in each line? The most common meter for poetry in English is iambic pentameter, which has five feet of two syllables each (thus the name "pentameter") in each of which the strongly stressed syllable follows the unstressed syllable. You can learn more about rhyme and meter by consulting our handout on sound and meter in poetry or the introduction to a standard textbook for poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Also relevant to this category of concerns are techniques such as caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (continuing a grammatical sentence or clause from one line to the next). Is there anything that you can tell about the poem from the choices that the author has made in this area? For more information about important literary terms, see our handout on the subject.
Figures of speech: Are there literary devices being used that affect how you read the poem? Here are some examples of commonly discussed figures of speech:
- metaphor: comparison between two unlike things
- simile: comparison between two unlike things using "like" or "as"
- metonymy: one thing stands for something else that is closely related to it (For example, using the phrase "the crown" to refer to the king would be an example of metonymy.)
- synecdoche: a part stands in for a whole (For example, in the phrase "all hands on deck," "hands" stands in for the people in the ship's crew.)
- personification: a non-human thing is endowed with human characteristics
- litotes: a double negative is used for poetic effect (example: not unlike, not displeased)
- irony: a difference between the surface meaning of the words and the implications that may be drawn from them
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
What Style Should I Use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing about poetry. First, when you analyze a poem, it is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs. Second, you will want to make use of numerous quotations from the poem and explain their meaning and their significance to your argument. After all, if you do not quote the poem itself when you are making an argument about it, you damage your credibility. If your teacher asks for outside criticism of the poem as well, you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. A third point to remember is that there are various citation formats for citing both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources. The most common citation format for writing about poetry is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format.
How to Write a Critical Analysis of a Poem
When you know how to write a critical analysis of a poem, you can enable the readers of your critical analysis to understand the language and symbols that the author of the poem uses better. A critical analysis is a form of subjective writing in which the writer expresses his/her evaluation or opinion of a text. A poem on the other hand is a form of writing that takes the nature of a song and a speech and it is almost rhythmical in most cases and usually metaphorical exhibiting different formal elements which include a stanzaic structure, rhyme and meter. A critical analysis of a poem therefore should break down a poem and study its parts to give the evaluation or opinion of the entire piece.
A step-by-step guide on how to write a critical analysis of a poem
While writing poems, authors are very deliberate with their choice of words as well as the format that they use to convey meaning. Most poets hope that their poems will be read aloud. This is why they strive to maintain high lyrical quality. Others strive to maintain interesting rhythms in punctuating the elements of their poems. As you write a critical analysis of a poem, depict an intimate appreciation of it.
Step 1: Read the poem
To critique a poem, you should read it severally to understand what the speaker is saying or what the main message of the poem is. If there are unusual or difficult words, find their meaning. In most cases, the title will give you the summary or general meaning of the main idea or thought that is being presented.
Step 2: Know who the speaker is
The speaker in a poem can be an elderly person, a child, a shepherd, a student, a swordsman, a sailor, a milkmaid, an animal or an object such as a chair, a place or a mountain. Speakers in poems speak differently.
Step 3: Identify the main theme of the poem
Start your critical analysis by identifying the major or specific theme in the poem that gives it a larger meaning. To identify this theme, you need to consider or study the entire poem including its title. Maybe the poem that you are analyzing is about losing innocence, growing old, or importance of preserving the environment. The overarching or major theme of a poem can come out clearly or it can be hidden in its presentation and words.
Step 4: Establish the context
The context gives the location and time of a poem. This is usually what prompts the creation of a poem. A poem can be prompted by a political event which has a great importance in the history of a country.
Step 5: Identify inter-textuality
This implies that a poem looks back to another poem. This is also called reference. If a poem has this aspect, include it in your analysis and show how it enhances the message or its delivery.
Step 6: Identify the genre of the poem
Genre is simply the category. There are characteristics and rules of each genre. For instance, a poem that comprises of a long narrative dealing with demi-gods or divine figures and describing incredible journeys or terrible wars that determine humanity fate is called an epic poem. A sonnet on the other had is a short poem with 14 lines in which intimate emotions are expressed. Other poem genres include mock-epic, lyric, ballad, parody and ode among others.
Step 7: Create a checklist for your critical analysis
You should come up with a checklist that will guide you as you review or analyze the poem. A checklist will enable you to analyze or dissect the poem into separate pieces in order to understand it as a complete piece better. For instance, you can come up with a checklist that includes the title, genre, viewpoint, setting, meter, rhyme scheme, context or conflict. Make the elements in your checklist your guide while writing the critical analysis of the poem.
Step 8: Review the poem’s plot
While reviewing the plot, answer the following questions after reading the poem:
- What is going on in the poem?
- Who is affected by what is going on?
Your answers to these questions will enable you to understand what exactly the poem is describing. This will enable you to apply the meaning of the poem in the analysis.
Step 9: Analyze the poem’s rhyme scheme
Note that, not every poem has a rhyme. Nevertheless, most poems are written with the hope that they will be read aloud and therefore they have a rhyme scheme. Perhaps, this is one of the most important steps of a guide on how to write a critical analysis of a poem because you must read and analyze the poem carefully to notice its rhyme scheme. Before you conclude that the poem under analysis does not have a rhyme scheme, read it aloud with a friend or alone. Listen to its sound instead of simply looking at its words. This will enable you to identify its rhyme scheme and analyze it.
Step 10: Analyze the format
A poem can be a free form. This means that it does not have an identifiable pattern. It can also have a unique writing scheme. The format of a poem is usually a deliberate choice of style or act by the writer. Describe the format chosen by the author in your critical analysis and what it could mean as well as how it hinders or help in communicating the message.
Step 11: Analyze the used figurative language
Poetry uses a wide range of literary devices which include personification, metaphor, simile, metonymy and irony. Apart from constituting the body, these devices also demonstrate the control of language by the author. Therefore, it is highly important that you evaluate and analyze the use of figurative language in the poem.
Step 12: Create a thesis statement
On the basis of your comprehension of the meaning of the poem, create a thesis statement for your critical analysis. Note that while writing any academic piece, you should have a strong, clear thesis statement.
Step 13: Gather evidence from the poem to support the controlling idea or thesis statement
In the body of your critical analysis, cite actual lines of the poem to support your thesis. This will make your critical analysis credible and strong. Readers will get clues of where your thesis statement came from because it will have adequate supporting evidence from the poem.
Step 14: Write the analysis
At this step, you already know how to write a critical analysis of a poem and you have all the information required to write a critical analysis of a poem. Use your checklist to write your critical analysis.
Your critical analysis should include the following:
The introduction should include:
- Title of the poem under analysis
- Author of the poem
- Publication information
- Purpose or topic statement
- Thesis statement that indicates your reaction to the poem
- Description or summary of the poem
Provide a summary or brief description of the poem that you are analyzing critically.
- Evaluation or/and interpretation of the poem
Use your checklist to analyze or evaluate or discuss different aspects of the poem as described in the steps of this guide.
Draw conclusions from your analysis. Tell readers what was the goal or theme of the poem that you were analyzing, tools that were used in conveying the main idea or theme of the poem, how they were used and whether they were effective.
Bonus tips on how to write a critical analysis of a poem
While writing a critical analysis of a poem, try to help the writer and the reader know how the poem would have been made better. Provide suggestions on how the writer can improve the work. However, point out instances where the author is inconsistent or not clear and then provide concrete advice to the writer.
When critiquing the work of another person, be constructive. Do not say unnecessarily harmful things about the poem. If you must say something negative about the poem, provide supporting evidence.
- Review the content of the poem
In your critical analysis, say whether the author was redundant in terms of the used imagery or chosen words. For instance, did the author use varying syllables, meters and vowel rhymes? How did the author choose the words to use in the poem? Did the author use irony, similes, metaphors or symbolism properly? Were they used consistently?
- Use a sample of a critical analysis of a poem
To easily know how to write a critical analysis of a poem, use a critical analysis sample as your writing guide. A good sample will enable you to know where and how to present different elements of your analysis. You can find an example of a critical analysis of a poem here.
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